Little Festival That Did: Newport Beach Film Festival Marks 20th Year with Big Aspirations

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Illustration by Pete Ryan

 

It was only a few short decades ago that we had to schlepp to Los Angeles to find an “art film.” Although we enjoyed a handful of spunky theaters in Orange County, some independent films, especially new releases, were hard to find.

It was that monotonous cultural pilgrimage north that inspired arts projects here, including the Newport Beach Film Festival, which turns 20 this month. It’s a remarkable achievement given the modest budget and cadre of some 500 loyal volunteers, including the director himself.

The event now attracts more than 50,000 visitors, making it one of the fastest-growing film festivals in the U.S. It is also among the most accessible, offering tickets to the public at modest prices, while many other festivals only cater to VIPs. This year’s 20th anniversary celebration takes place from April 25 to May 2 and will feature films including “The Tomorrow Man,” starring John Lithgow and Blythe Danner, and “Bluebird,” starring Connie Britton, Garth Brooks, Kacey Musgraves, and Taylor Swift.

“From the start, Newport Beach Film Festival, with help from the city and its wonderful location, attracted stars and film industry experts who were bringing their films to us,” says Janice Arrington, who took on the role of Orange County Film Commissioner shortly after the festival started. “Soon, the competition increased where we went from a hundred films to several hundred; now we get thousands.”

The festival has screened world premieres of such hits as “Crash” and “Chef.” Green Day attended the West Coast premiere of its documentary, “Broadway Idiot,” here. Celebrities including Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Aaron Sorkin, and Milo Ventimiglia have graced the event. The festival has expanded its boundaries and now offers film cruises, an awards show in London preceding the British Academy Film Awards, and the Orange County Film Society, which brings pre-released films to members.

Last fall, the festival gained national celebrity panache when a group of notable actors showed up at Pelican Hill to be honored in Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch awards, an event Newport Beach wrested away from the Hamptons. Among the glitterati: “Crazy Rich Asians” stars Henry Golding and     Gemma Chan, Letitia Wright from “Black Panther,” Colman Domingo from “If Beale Street Could Talk,” John David Washington from “BlacKkKlansman,” Marina de Tavira from “Roma,” Russell Hornsby from “The Hate U Give,” Zazie Beetz of “Deadpool 2,” and 15-year-old Elsie Fisher from “Eighth Grade.”

Newport Beach Film Festival founders Gregg Schwenk, far left, and Todd Quartararo, far right, surround A-listers (from left) Topher Grace, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Colman Domingo, and Zazie Beetz at The Resort at Pelican Hill in November. Photo credit: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

 

It has been an eventful road for founders Gregg Schwenk and Todd Quartararo. Twenty years ago, Quartararo was working for an ad agency, and Schwenk did mergers and acquisitions for CitiGroup and served on an economic development committee for Newport Beach. The two had grown weary of driving north for culture, and they agreed that a film festival would fill a local cultural gap—and attract tourism.

They were able to cobble together enough money to rent a 500-square-foot office.

“We only had two phone lines coming in, so if there were two people on the phone, you had to wait to make a call,” recalls Quartararo, laughing. “The previous tenant left a copying machine, and I thought, we just struck pay dirt.”

He describes the pangs in the pit of his stomach at opening night the first year of the festival, when they rolled out the red carpet two hours before the show and weren’t sure anyone would show up. Their fears were allayed as about 1,000 people turned out.

The Visit Newport Beach organization—a private, nonprofit marketing company that contracts with the city—estimates that half the festival’s attendees come from outside Newport Beach. But the biggest share of the fun still belongs to locals.

“It’s a film festival where you’re not behind the rope,” Arrington says. Attendees are allowed to talk formally and informally after the movies with the filmmakers. The event is known for being more social—indeed, more “communal,” as one volunteer put it, than others. There are so many parties that it is possible to buy a party-only pass and skip the films entirely.

But that would be foolish, as you’re bound to find at least a handful of films to like. In addition to feature-length narratives, there are sections devoted to animation, music videos, shorts, art, architecture, and design. There is a general documentary category, there are environmental films, and there is an adrenaline category, tapping into the county’s action-sports business.

More than 300 films are screened. Various nights showcase works from different parts of the world including the Pacific Rim, Latin America, the U.K., Ireland, and other European countries. Filmmakers attend from abroad, many of them experiencing the thrill of their first U.S. screenings.

Leslie Feibleman, a 17-year volunteer and director of special programs for the festival, loves working closely with the foreign filmmakers: “They’ve poured their money into this, traveled to dangerous areas, taken a lot of risks, put second (mortgages) on their houses to finance their films. When they finally get here to their screening—to see their reactions when they see their films, sometimes the first time in a theater—it’s just such an honor to work with them.”

Many volunteers make the festival their annual tradition.

“It’s almost like summer camp,” says Quartararo, now marketing director of the group. “People have their group of friends who meet up every year and volunteer at the festival. Toward the end of the festival, you see all the renewed relationships, and new relationships are made.”

executive director and CEO Schwenk says there is something special that sets this festival apart from others: “The festival here is very personal. It’s not one of those mass film festivals where you’re caught up in huge tides of people.”

There are memorable moments, such as when songwriter Richard Sherman, who wrote the songs for “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and “Mary Poppins,” sat down at a baby grand piano and ripped through his songbook. Another time, Burt Bacharach took to the piano without warning, leading festival organizers to now include a baby grand as a standard prop.

“As a small nonprofit, we have exceeded the expectations we set for ourselves 20 years ago,” Schwenk says. “What’s wonderful about Newport Beach is we definitely have the capacity to grow our festival. We’re very happy with what we’ve achieved. And we look forward to the challenges and opportunities.”

From a marketing standpoint, the festival has been a tremendous success, says Gary Sherwin, president and CEO of Visit Newport Beach. “We see the festival as a critical brand builder for Newport Beach,” he says.

The city certainly has a storied history with Hollywood, from John Wayne to Bogie and Bacall to the first Miss Newport Beach, 13-year-old Shirley Temple.

“Look at the tens of millions of media impressions the festival gives Newport Beach from a travel and tourism standpoint,” Quartararo says. “We’re in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and The Daily Mail, and Sky News.”

The Newport Beach event isn’t a place where films go to market, and that might make a difference in its stature in the future. But that could also become its attraction. “It’s a warm, welcoming film festival that at the same time has professional contacts with the film industry every year and that is growing every year,” Arrington says. “It’s been growing on its own without a lot of money. It would grow much more with additional money.”

The city of Newport Beach contributes $150,000 to the festival. The Palm Springs festival, which is widely viewed as a step to the Oscars, received $400,000 from that city last year.

The question facing the festival is how much it should grow. Is there room for a Sundance here, and if there is, do we want it? Because there’s something to be said about getting in the door.

See It!
The Newport Beach Film Festival takes place April 25 to May 2. Tickets range from $16 to $250 for the opening night. Passes available all the way up to $600 for an all-access pass. Purchase tickets at newportbeachfilmfest.com.

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